Friday, July 2, 2010

American People Reject Stacked Deck

American People Reject Stacked Deck

By Roger Hickey, Co-Director of the Campaign for America's Future
HuffingtonPost: June 27, 2010

On Saturday, the group known as America Speaks (funded by Wall Street mogul
Peter G. Peterson and two other foundations) brought together several
thousand people in meetings in 18 cities. They gave participants misleading
background information about the federal deficit and economic options to
achieve fiscal "balance" and future prosperity.

Peterson cannot be pleased with the participants' mainly progressive policy
choices, which will be presented on June 30 to the Deficit Commission that
Peterson encouraged President Obama to create.

According to America Speaks' own press release, when a scientifically
selected group of participants picked up their electronic voting devices,
they overwhelmingly supported proposals to

a.. Raise tax rates on corporate income and those earning more than $1
b.. Reduce military spending by 10 to 15 percent,
c.. Create a carbon tax and a securities-transaction tax.
This pretty progressive set of solutions emerged from the process many
feared would be skewed to the solutions of conservative deficit hawks.

America Speaks was certainly not pushing the discussion in a progressive
direction. The background materials -- and policy options -- provided to
participants were anything but fair and balanced, as analysis by economist
Dean Baker demonstrated. Most egregious were the following:

Social Security. America Speaks gave participants no explanation of the fact
that Social Security has its own source of funding, and thus does not
contribute a dime to the deficit. Americans actually have been paying extra
payroll taxes to create a trust fund that will make sure full benefits can
be paid for decades into the future -- and thus there is no rational reason
to cut Social Security benefits (or raise the retirement age) in order to
reduce the Federal deficit. But you wouldn't know that from the America
Speaks materials or explanations. The Social Security program is simply
presented as another big spending program and participants were presented
with various ways to cut benefits. Given all this, a majority endorsed
raising the retirement age for full benefits to 69 -- a benefit cut for
future retirees. But they also chose the progressive plan to raise the cap
on taxable earnings subject to Social Security taxes, thus producing income
for the system from greater portion of higher income peoples' wages.

Medicare and Medicaid. The America Speaks background materials actually did
acknowledge that the rising budgetary costs of Medicare and Medicaid are
driven by the fact that our whole health care system is broken -- and
costing both the private sector and government programs much more per person
than in countries that have much better health outcomes. They even
acknowledged that thoroughgoing reform -- like single-payer health care
system -- is the only way to control those rising costs.

However, when it came to options the participants were allowed to vote on,
they were all variations on how much people wanted to cut Medicare and
Medicaid benefits. At this point in the proceedings, the America Speaks
founder and President, Carolyn Lukensmeyer had to acknowledge a rebellion in
the ranks. People were demanding to have the option of voting for
"single-payer" reform instead of cutting Medicare and Medicaid, and when she
announced a complicated process of writing in that alternative, a roar of
approval went up from the crowd in several locations. Their press release
doesn't report how many people chose this difficult to select option, but
the organization clearly had had to scramble to quell a revolt by
participants. (Note: their press release states that people chose to "cut
health care spending by at least five percent," but the choice was really to
cut government health programs five percent -- and my reading of the charts
online was that only 21 percent of participants chose that option, with 71
percent choosing "no change.")

Austerity vs Growth. Finally, the organizers had heard enough protests from
the Economic Policy Institute and the AFL-CIO that they felt they had to
assure the audience that they were not prioritizing deficit reduction over
the need for economic stimulus to get the economy to start producing jobs.
But after that ritual disclaimer, they went on to devote the vast majority
of the day to deficits as our defining economic program.

David Dyen, an LA participant, wrote in a post on firedoglake,

"While the cumulative effect of all this tends towards social safety net
cuts rather than tax fairness, the crowd in Los Angeles, at least, wasn't
biting at first. In surveying the discussion groups, most people seemed more
concerned about the desperate need for more stimulus spending to move the
economic recovery forward... In the nationwide instant survey, taken by
participants through electronic devices at all 19 America Speaks sites, 61%
said the government needed to do more to strengthen the recovery, with only
25% opposed. Even with a push poll question asking if participants supported
government programs to increase growth "if it increases the deficit," got a
majority, 51%, of the nation-wide group of participants.

My next-day posting here -- claiming participants mostly rejected
conservative nostrums -- is based on watching the process online, from
reports from people who attended events around the country -- and on a
fairly sketchy press release put out by America Speaks on Thursday, just
after the town meetings. But America Speaks billed these events as a
nation-wide scientific experiment in finding out what the "American people"
think about the economic way forward. They are thus duty bound to publish a
full report on the details of every single question -- and voting results --
that participants were asked to make decisions about. It is especially
important that they put out this comprehensive report because they are also
scheduled to summarize their findings before a special public meeting of the
White House Deficit Commission on June 30. Only then can the people who
participated in the process judge whether their surprisingly progressive
decisions are being accurately presented to the Commission.

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